Looking for a camera that can handle the real world and not take too much of your luggage up? Olympus lets us play with its second-gen E-M5. Is this the best digital mirrorless yet?
When it comes to mirrorless cameras and the interchangeable ilk, it’s hard to go past the Micro Four Thirds format championed by Olympus and Panasonic. While the two may be rivals, they are the two working the hardest to make the Micro Four Thirds format one of the most successful lens and sensor styles around, providing a small sensor with lenses that work across each of the cameras.
We’ve seen plenty of Panasonic models in this range before, and Panasonic is sure doing what it can to make sure the Micro Four Thirds world caters to 4K Ultra HD video capture, but Olympus is focusing instead on providing a look of something old with the guts of something from today.
The latest generation of the Olympus take on the concept, the Mark II OM-D E-M5 is a second-generation edition of an interchangeable we saw a few years ago, and this new one features a revamped version of the Micro Four Thirds LiveMOS sensor the company has been using on cameras for a few years now, relying on a 16.1 megapixel sensor module without a mirror with a wave filter dust reduction system working in front.
It’s likely you’ve already worked out from our numbers that this sensor shoots at 16 megapixels, but what you may not know is what it does beyond this, capturing at 16 megapixels in RAW and JPEG, and supporting what essentially amounts to a 40 megapixel image or close to a 64 megapixel image using a special high-resolution mode that can shift the sensor.
Manual modes such as Program, Aperture-priority, Shutter-priority, and the obviously named “manual” are all supported here, as it is with regular shooting, and you’ll find low-light sensitivity ranges on the camera from ISO 100 to 25600.
There are even scene modes offered, in case manual is a little too advanced for you, with several options, including portrait, landscape, fireworks, beach, macro, and sunset, among others.
Several colour tones and artistic modes are available to the you, as are customised colour profiles you can save for later, handy if you’re used to shooting a specific type of colour mode like monochromatic.
Images on the camera can be shot at a maximum of 10 frames per second in high-speed mode, though the buffer will only hold a maximum of 16 RAW images when set at this level or 19 JPEGs. A lower setting of 5 frames per second is also available, with the maximum number of frames in this mode set closer to infinite (or until the memory runs out).
Image sizes are also offered beyond that of the RAW and JPEG formats, catering to 3:2, 16:9 widescreen, 1:1 square, 3:4, and the standard 4:3 aspect ratio most cameras rely on.
Video is also capable from the Mark II, recording in either MOV or AVI format, the former of which supports Full HD 1080p (1920×1080) or 720p HD (1280×720) ranging from 24p to 60p, while AVI can handle either 640×480 or 1280×720 in a maximum of 30p.
The Olympus video mode has been designed to take advantage of the Olympus 5 axis sensor found at the top of the camera, stabilising the video almost like a Steadicam would.
A 3 inch vari-angle OLED touchscreen monitor lets you take a gander at your image and compose them, but a viewfinder can also be found built into this unit providing 100% field of view and 2.36 million dots.
Wireless technology is built into the Mark II camera, too, providing wireless transfer to a smartphone or tablet, as well as camera control from the said device using the Olympus application.
A flash is included with the unit, making up for there being no flash built inside the camera.
The OM-D E-M5 Mark II captures images and video to an SD card.
Out of the box and into the hand, and the Olympus design of the Mark II is a sight to behold and to, well, hold.
We’ve always appreciated the style Oly has brought from its traditional cameras, a heritage that the company hopes people haven’t forgotten with the designers merging that older look with a newer feel and improvements in technology.
While the look is that of something old, those looks can be deceiving, because inside this camera is all new guts, so you can leave those ageing rolls of purple film in the fridge.
Our review model was silver and black, retaining the look of the old OM cameras Olympus used to manufacturer back in the 70s, with a feel of something equally historic: metal.
Not just any metal, either.
Weather-resistant metal, designed to handle a bit of a flogging from the elements.
We say “bit” because that basically translates to “rain” not the hurricane your brain has probably mustered up from out of the blue, but it’s still better than so many of the other bodies we see that aren’t equipped for drizzle.
Yes, there’s a solid body here, providing a camera that feels like how you’d expect a camera to feel, and Olympus has left plenty of dials and knobs for people who love to fiddle and change things, including a switch on the back near the viewfinder allowing you to quickly define what the front and back wheels do when your hands are grappling with the controls, allowing you to quickly jump between aperture and shutter settings to something else, say ISO and white balance, simply by flicking the switch.
That’s for the manual buffs out there, of which we certainly qualify as, but if you prefer an easier take on photography, you’ll find touchscreen focus here, as well as some easy auto modes that allow you simply to touch the screen to fire the shot.
In those aforementioned hands, there’s a comfortable hand hold underneath the body, and a leather-texture on the grip.
It’s not leather, no, but it is comfy to hold, and together with the metal and textures, the body does come off feeling like a camera out of yesteryear, only with guts from today.
It’s smaller than the original camera, and that’s a good thing, too.
Good for your hands, good for your shoulders, and good for your neck, but still usable as a camera of today, because why should you be forced to carry around something huge to fire off pretty shots when you can get the same results out of something small?
When you do fire the shot, you should find some excellent colour reproduction alongside sharp images, something we found in the majority of the photographs we grabbed during our time with the OM-D E-M5 Mark II.
Images were clear, and while you don’t necessarily have to know what you’re doing, if you do, you’ll find photos with plenty of detail waiting for you.
Noise was picked up above ISO 3200, so we’d stick to settings below it unless you’re in low light, with ISO 25600 being literally dotted with noise, but that is to be expected at those settings, and most of the time, you should be fine with what’s on offer.
There is one thing, though, that you’ll want to keep with you: the flash.
You see, just like with previous single-digit models in the OM-D series of cameras, there is no built-in flash here. Rather, that pieces comes as an included extra, with the little flash head attachable via the hot-shoe at the top of the unit.
While we’d normally prefer that to be built into the unit, Olympus is at least filling this gap by making the flash a little more special, with the ability to not just aim the head at different angles in the 90 degree arc, but also rotate the head, so you can bounce the flash off a side wall if need be.
It’s not going to replace a dedicated flash head unit, no way, as there’s just not enough power, but it does do a little more than your standard built-in flash, and is much more useful than the ho-hum external flash we’re used to seeing that can only fire the flash in one or two directions.
One extra mode will also likely pique the curiosity of photographers fanatical over image quality, and that’s the high resolution mode.
The name is a little surprising, mind you, because surely everything you’re shooting on a camera of this quality should be high resolution, and it is, but this mode is a little different.
High res mode, though, is the special sauce mode that only Olympus has thought up, and will take a larger-than-16 megapixel image by moving the sensor up, down, and across in remarkably tiny shifts, taking what is essentially several images and merging them for one larger image.
While it might seem like a panorama, it actually isn’t that, because the image isn’t wide.
Rather, it’s not far off from the image you’d normally capture without high res mode switched on — you know, regular old conventional shooting — but with more image quality thrown in from a picture that has been put together with as much detail as possible.
We tested this and found the 40 megapixel JPEG was able to show even more detail than the 16 megapixel one, hardly surprising given the amount of detail inside, but still impressive nonetheless.
Interestingly, you can set the feature up to run with a larger amount of megapixels in RAW mode, with close to 64 megapixels.
As impressive as the sensor shifting technology is, you’ll want to make sure the camera is perfectly still, as it doesn’t work when either the surface you’ve left the camera on or the subject matter you’re photographing is moving.
Not yet, anyway. We suspect Olympus is working on something for that, but right now, you have to be a statue.
Video is also one of the chief reasons to check this camera out, and while we don’t spend as much time evaluating this area — this journalist has always been a stills photographer primarily — the 5 axis stabilisation technology Olympus has been working on for yonks makes this camera worthwhile.
Granted, there’s no 4K UHD video capture yet, and that’s a shame, but since we don’t have much to show video in high definition on, let alone much of a fantastic and easy editing workflow for everyone, we’re not totally concerned by this.
Rather, the Olympus approach to improvements in the video space is to make that multi-axis stabilisation system hidden where the pentaprism would normally go function like a Steadicam, stopping excess vibrations from being picked up by your hands and allowing you a fairly steady movement as you hold and walk with the camera.
This only applies to video (because why would you need it for stills?) but offers something no other camera does well, and if you’re an amateur filmmaker, could end up saving you some dollars on a gadget that does more or less the same thing.
Wireless functionality is also the other notable thing Olympus has been improving in this generation, and to our delight, the company appears to have one of better implementations of wireless control for its cameras.
On the one hand, the app is easy to work with, allowing you to pair a camera with the smartphone or tablet easily using an app and a QR code, or just a wireless networking ID, because that works too.
Once the two are connected, you can move files from one to the other without too much of a problem, and even control the camera remotely.
That was perhaps our favourite part of the app as it not only offered the basics, but also some of that manual control using a live viewfinder.
Aperture, shutter speed, ISO, it’s all here, almost as if you were holding the camera with your hands, only you don’t need to, and you can leave the camera on a table or tripod and fire off some photos remotely.
There are some negatives to the second generation E-M5, but Olympus does tick most of the boxes off without any problems, and provided you keep your shooting to under ISO6400, you’ll probably find the camera handles itself very well.
Where Olympus makes a few misses, however, comes with what could be improved, and what’s missing from the box.
So what is the E-M5 Mk II missing, and what could it improve?
Start-up time is one of those things that could grab from the latter, because while it only takes a few seconds for the new E-M5 to be ready for action, it’s still a little slower than we’d like, and we occasionally found the shutter and focusing wasn’t ready for us by the time we fired the shot.
With that in mind, we started to leave the camera on the entirety of when it was in use, letting the E-M5 II go to standby and bringing it back from that resting period when we needed it, which was far more effective and faster than when we revived it from full off.
The battery could also do with a hint of improvement, just to make it a touch more modern.
Now credit where credit is due, and that’s over in the battery department, with a good 400-500 shots taken on our camera before the battery gives out, which isn’t too shabby.
What we wished would be improved is the external charger.
Some cameras have done away with this altogether, switching to a microUSB charge terminal on the camera, meaning you don’t need to carry around an external charge brick, which you do here.
It’s not a huge issue, but it’s one that would have been nice to see an improvement on.
For a long time, this journalist has been a photographer, and like so many others out there, has tried to document the world putting eye to the viewfinder.
He’s gone through film and made his way to digital, and has carried around big hulking beasts that survive crowds and storms and more.
But most of those days are behind him, so carrying something large isn’t always the go anymore.
Indeed, sometimes it’s okay to say “I’m going to put down the big guns and settle with something smaller from here-on in”.
And that’s exactly what the Olympus E-M5 Mark II allows, except it does so without that much of a statement.
In fact, it does so by letting you keep the big guns, but shrinks them down to a size where your shoulders, your arms, and your back — crikey, your back — will appreciate you more in life.
The point of this is that while the E-M5 Mark II isn’t a big camera, it proves its existence by acting like a big camera, offering weather resistance, durability in design, and image quality that will make you consider whether your older digital SLR is still worth carrying around.
We’re almost sold. Really, truly.